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RISC-V Instruction Set Manual, Volume I: RISC-V User-Level ISA , isa-449cd0c 2023/04/18

26 Extending RISC-V

In addition to supporting standard general-purpose software development, another goal of RISC-V is to provide a basis for more specialized instruction-set extensions or more customized accelerators. The instruction encoding spaces and optional variable-length instruction encoding are designed to make it easier to leverage software development effort for the standard ISA toolchain when building more customized processors. For example, the intent is to continue to provide full software support for implementations that only use the standard I base, perhaps together with many non-standard instruction-set extensions.

This chapter describes various ways in which the base RISC-V ISA can be extended, together with the scheme for managing instruction-set extensions developed by independent groups. This volume only deals with the unprivileged ISA, although the same approach and terminology is used for supervisor-level extensions described in the second volume.

26.1 Extension Terminology

This section defines some standard terminology for describing RISC-V extensions.

Standard versus Non-Standard Extension

Any RISC-V processor implementation must support a base integer ISA (RV32I, RV32E, RV64I, or RV128I). In addition, an implementation may support one or more extensions. We divide extensions into two broad categories: standard versus non-standard.

  • A standard extension is one that is generally useful and that is designed to not conflict with any other standard extension. Currently, “MAFDQLCBTPV”, described in other chapters of this manual, are either complete or planned standard extensions.

  • A non-standard extension may be highly specialized and may conflict with other standard or non-standard extensions. We anticipate a wide variety of non-standard extensions will be developed over time, with some eventually being promoted to standard extensions.

Instruction Encoding Spaces and Prefixes

An instruction encoding space is some number of instruction bits within which a base ISA or ISA extension is encoded. RISC-V supports varying instruction lengths, but even within a single instruction length, there are various sizes of encoding space available. For example, the base ISAs are defined within a 30-bit encoding space (bits 31–2 of the 32-bit instruction), while the atomic extension “A” fits within a 25-bit encoding space (bits 31–7).

We use the term prefix to refer to the bits to the right of an instruction encoding space (since instruction fetch in RISC-V is little-endian, the bits to the right are stored at earlier memory addresses, hence form a prefix in instruction-fetch order). The prefix for the standard base ISA encoding is the two-bit “11” field held in bits 1–0 of the 32-bit word, while the prefix for the standard atomic extension “A” is the seven-bit “0101111” field held in bits 6–0 of the 32-bit word representing the AMO major opcode. A quirk of the encoding format is that the 3-bit funct3 field used to encode a minor opcode is not contiguous with the major opcode bits in the 32-bit instruction format, but is considered part of the prefix for 22-bit instruction spaces.

Although an instruction encoding space could be of any size, adopting a smaller set of common sizes simplifies packing independently developed extensions into a single global encoding. Table 1.1 gives the suggested sizes for RISC-V.

Suggested standard RISC-V instruction encoding space sizes.

Greenfield versus Brownfield Extensions

We use the term greenfield extension to describe an extension that begins populating a new instruction encoding space, and hence can only cause encoding conflicts at the prefix level. We use the term brownfield extension to describe an extension that fits around existing encodings in a previously defined instruction space. A brownfield extension is necessarily tied to a particular greenfield parent encoding, and there may be multiple brownfield extensions to the same greenfield parent encoding. For example, the base ISAs are greenfield encodings of a 30-bit instruction space, while the FDQ floating-point extensions are all brownfield extensions adding to the parent base ISA 30-bit encoding space.

Note that we consider the standard A extension to have a greenfield encoding as it defines a new previously empty 25-bit encoding space in the leftmost bits of the full 32-bit base instruction encoding, even though its standard prefix locates it within the 30-bit encoding space of its parent base ISA. Changing only its single 7-bit prefix could move the A extension to a different 30-bit encoding space while only worrying about conflicts at the prefix level, not within the encoding space itself.

Adds state No new state
Greenfield RV32I(30), RV64I(30) A(25)
Brownfield F(I), D(F), Q(D) M(I)

Table [exttax] shows the bases and standard extensions placed in a simple two-dimensional taxonomy. One axis is whether the extension is greenfield or brownfield, while the other axis is whether the extension adds architectural state. For greenfield extensions, the size of the instruction encoding space is given in parentheses. For brownfield extensions, the name of the extension (greenfield or brownfield) it builds upon is given in parentheses. Additional user-level architectural state usually implies changes to the supervisor-level system or possibly to the standard calling convention.

Note that RV64I is not considered an extension of RV32I, but a different complete base encoding.

Standard-Compatible Global Encodings

A complete or global encoding of an ISA for an actual RISC-V implementation must allocate a unique non-conflicting prefix for every included instruction encoding space. The bases and every standard extension have each had a standard prefix allocated to ensure they can all coexist in a global encoding.

A standard-compatible global encoding is one where the base and every included standard extension have their standard prefixes. A standard-compatible global encoding can include non-standard extensions that do not conflict with the included standard extensions. A standard-compatible global encoding can also use standard prefixes for non-standard extensions if the associated standard extensions are not included in the global encoding. In other words, a standard extension must use its standard prefix if included in a standard-compatible global encoding, but otherwise its prefix is free to be reallocated. These constraints allow a common toolchain to target the standard subset of any RISC-V standard-compatible global encoding.

Guaranteed Non-Standard Encoding Space

To support development of proprietary custom extensions, portions of the encoding space are guaranteed to never be used by standard extensions.

26.2 RISC-V Extension Design Philosophy

We intend to support a large number of independently developed extensions by encouraging extension developers to operate within instruction encoding spaces, and by providing tools to pack these into a standard-compatible global encoding by allocating unique prefixes. Some extensions are more naturally implemented as brownfield augmentations of existing extensions, and will share whatever prefix is allocated to their parent greenfield extension. The standard extension prefixes avoid spurious incompatibilities in the encoding of core functionality, while allowing custom packing of more esoteric extensions.

This capability of repacking RISC-V extensions into different standard-compatible global encodings can be used in a number of ways.

One use-case is developing highly specialized custom accelerators, designed to run kernels from important application domains. These might want to drop all but the base integer ISA and add in only the extensions that are required for the task in hand. The base ISAs have been designed to place minimal requirements on a hardware implementation, and has been encoded to use only a small fraction of a 32-bit instruction encoding space.

Another use-case is to build a research prototype for a new type of instruction-set extension. The researchers might not want to expend the effort to implement a variable-length instruction-fetch unit, and so would like to prototype their extension using a simple 32-bit fixed-width instruction encoding. However, this new extension might be too large to coexist with standard extensions in the 32-bit space. If the research experiments do not need all of the standard extensions, a standard-compatible global encoding might drop the unused standard extensions and reuse their prefixes to place the proposed extension in a non-standard location to simplify engineering of the research prototype. Standard tools will still be able to target the base and any standard extensions that are present to reduce development time. Once the instruction-set extension has been evaluated and refined, it could then be made available for packing into a larger variable-length encoding space to avoid conflicts with all standard extensions.

The following sections describe increasingly sophisticated strategies for developing implementations with new instruction-set extensions. These are mostly intended for use in highly customized, educational, or experimental architectures rather than for the main line of RISC-V ISA development.

26.3 Extensions within fixed-width 32-bit instruction format

In this section, we discuss adding extensions to implementations that only support the base fixed-width 32-bit instruction format.

We anticipate the simplest fixed-width 32-bit encoding will be popular for many restricted accelerators and research prototypes.

Available 30-bit instruction encoding spaces

In the standard encoding, three of the available 30-bit instruction encoding spaces (those with 2-bit prefixes 00, 01, and 10) are used to enable the optional compressed instruction extension. However, if the compressed instruction-set extension is not required, then these three further 30-bit encoding spaces become available. This quadruples the available encoding space within the 32-bit format.

Available 25-bit instruction encoding spaces

A 25-bit instruction encoding space corresponds to a major opcode in the base and standard extension encodings.

There are four major opcodes expressly designated for custom extensions (Table [opcodemap]), each of which represents a 25-bit encoding space. Two of these are reserved for eventual use in the RV128 base encoding (will be OP-IMM-64 and OP-64), but can be used for non-standard extensions for RV32 and RV64.

The two major opcodes reserved for RV64 (OP-IMM-32 and OP-32) can also be used for non-standard extensions to RV32 only.

If an implementation does not require floating-point, then the seven major opcodes reserved for standard floating-point extensions (LOAD-FP, STORE-FP, MADD, MSUB, NMSUB, NMADD, OP-FP) can be reused for non-standard extensions. Similarly, the AMO major opcode can be reused if the standard atomic extensions are not required.

If an implementation does not require instructions longer than 32-bits, then an additional four major opcodes are available (those marked in gray in Table [opcodemap]).

The base RV32I encoding uses only 11 major opcodes plus 3 reserved opcodes, leaving up to 18 available for extensions. The base RV64I encoding uses only 13 major opcodes plus 3 reserved opcodes, leaving up to 16 available for extensions.

Available 22-bit instruction encoding spaces

A 22-bit encoding space corresponds to a funct3 minor opcode space in the base and standard extension encodings. Several major opcodes have a funct3 field minor opcode that is not completely occupied, leaving available several 22-bit encoding spaces.

Usually a major opcode selects the format used to encode operands in the remaining bits of the instruction, and ideally, an extension should follow the operand format of the major opcode to simplify hardware decoding.

Other spaces

Smaller spaces are available under certain major opcodes, and not all minor opcodes are entirely filled.

26.4 Adding aligned 64-bit instruction extensions

The simplest approach to provide space for extensions that are too large for the base 32-bit fixed-width instruction format is to add naturally aligned 64-bit instructions. The implementation must still support the 32-bit base instruction format, but can require that 64-bit instructions are aligned on 64-bit boundaries to simplify instruction fetch, with a 32-bit NOP instruction used as alignment padding where necessary.

To simplify use of standard tools, the 64-bit instructions should be encoded as described in Figure [instlengthcode]. However, an implementation might choose a non-standard instruction-length encoding for 64-bit instructions, while retaining the standard encoding for 32-bit instructions. For example, if compressed instructions are not required, then a 64-bit instruction could be encoded using one or more zero bits in the first two bits of an instruction.

We anticipate processor generators that produce instruction-fetch units capable of automatically handling any combination of supported variable-length instruction encodings.

26.5 Supporting VLIW encodings

Although RISC-V was not designed as a base for a pure VLIW machine, VLIW encodings can be added as extensions using several alternative approaches. In all cases, the base 32-bit encoding has to be supported to allow use of any standard software tools.

Fixed-size instruction group

The simplest approach is to define a single large naturally aligned instruction format (e.g., 128 bits) within which VLIW operations are encoded. In a conventional VLIW, this approach would tend to waste instruction memory to hold NOPs, but a RISC-V-compatible implementation would have to also support the base 32-bit instructions, confining the VLIW code size expansion to VLIW-accelerated functions.

Encoded-Length Groups

Another approach is to use the standard length encoding from Figure [instlengthcode] to encode parallel instruction groups, allowing NOPs to be compressed out of the VLIW instruction. For example, a 64-bit instruction could hold two 28-bit operations, while a 96-bit instruction could hold three 28-bit operations, and so on. Alternatively, a 48-bit instruction could hold one 42-bit operation, while a 96-bit instruction could hold two 42-bit operations, and so on.

This approach has the advantage of retaining the base ISA encoding for instructions holding a single operation, but has the disadvantage of requiring a new 28-bit or 42-bit encoding for operations within the VLIW instructions, and misaligned instruction fetch for larger groups. One simplification is to not allow VLIW instructions to straddle certain microarchitecturally significant boundaries (e.g., cache lines or virtual memory pages).

Fixed-Size Instruction Bundles

Another approach, similar to Itanium, is to use a larger naturally aligned fixed instruction bundle size (e.g., 128 bits) across which parallel operation groups are encoded. This simplifies instruction fetch, but shifts the complexity to the group execution engine. To remain RISC-V compatible, the base 32-bit instruction would still have to be supported.

End-of-Group bits in Prefix

None of the above approaches retains the RISC-V encoding for the individual operations within a VLIW instruction. Yet another approach is to repurpose the two prefix bits in the fixed-width 32-bit encoding. One prefix bit can be used to signal “end-of-group” if set, while the second bit could indicate execution under a predicate if clear. Standard RISC-V 32-bit instructions generated by tools unaware of the VLIW extension would have both prefix bits set (11) and thus have the correct semantics, with each instruction at the end of a group and not predicated.

The main disadvantage of this approach is that the base ISAs lack the complex predication support usually required in an aggressive VLIW system, and it is difficult to add space to specify more predicate registers in the standard 30-bit encoding space.